Ermahgerd, Profernity!

Warning:  Explicit Content.  If thou beest offended, avert thine eyes and return next week.  If thous beest at the place of thy work, put away thy web browser and do thy work.  The web will be waiting for thee when thou goest home.

This week’s article is about the use of profanity in fantasy fiction.  Fair warning: I’m not censoring the words we’re talking about, so consider this entry “R-rated”.  I thought about censoring the article, but then I thought

Coincidentally, as I was wrapping this up, my good friend Andrew sent me a poem that just happened to fit right in. He’s graciously allowed me to include it here as a lead in.

“The Unicorn and the Whore”

~Andrew Lias

I once knew a whore

Who owned a beautiful white unicorn.

I never did find a way
To ask the delicate and obvious question;
Fortunately, Mary wasn’t a delicate woman.

“It’s a fucking phallic symbol!
Of course the horny fucks think they want virgins,
But the truth of the matter
Is that they’re happier with a girl like me.”

For what it’s worth,
The unicorn seemed to agree.

Creative-writing and lit classes often discuss an author’s use of profanity in their work.  Literature has gotten away with this longer than TV or movies (books are not yet subject to a rater’s board the way movies are).  There is a time and place for profanity in fiction, but does it have a place in fantasy, especially fantasy set in fictional or pre-modern worlds?

I’ve come across this challenge in my own writing when one of my beta readers complained about the profanity–not because she was offended, but because it felt “out of place” for her reverie in the fantastical world, and broke her suspension of disbelief.  The second thing to happen this week is my Mom offered to do a deep edit on my manuscript.  My Mom is an English major, and this would be quite valuable.  However, she’s my Mom, and my work is somewhat… more than PG rated.

So this got me to thinking on the topic overall of profanity in fiction, science-fiction, and fantasy in general.  There’s a lot of fantasy out there set at different market levels.  Things like Harry Potter, Narnia and Golden Compass were marketed as young-adult fiction.  Tolkien was not marketed to young adults, but there was certainly nothing profane in the texts.  The modern market seems mixed.

In fiction, there are reasons to use profanity.  I’m a fan of realism, so I find somewhat artificial stories about war, mob bosses, or city life that don’t have any profanity.  Science-fiction can certainly borrow from any modern slang because it’s usually in the future.  But fantasy?  Some profanity is modern, but the “big ones” have old roots.  I wonder if some people associate that language with modern stories is a by-product of our books and movies being censored by Victorian-era values or propriety.

Because I like making up arbitrary measuring sticks, let’s define profanity levels as follows (As this is “the internet”, I’ll keep it somewhat censored):

  • 0: Shucky Dern, Dagnabbit, Fiddlesticks, Light!, Blast!  Holy Almost, Batman!  Frak. Frel.  Erma Gerd.
  • 1: damn, hell, whore, slut
  • 2: bitch, ass
  • 3: shit, cock, dick
  • 4: fuck
  • 5: cunt
  • 6: slurs

(none of the above will lead to embarrassing pictures–they’re wikipedia links to the history of the vulgarity.  Not all words had such links).

Level 0 is the realm of Leave-it-to-Beaver sensitivities or made-up language.  (Frak=BSG, and Frel=Farscape).  We also have “Blast!” from Star Wars and “Light!” from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  Once we leave Level-0, we’re no longer in young-kid territory.  (I certainly would be surprised if Kermit ever told Cookie Monster to go to hell).

Level 1 was scandalous in Gone with the Wind, but is common now on prime-time TV.  Not young kid stuff, but after-homework kid stuff.

Most mainstream fantasy, to include Dungeons and Dragons franchises such as the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms , and Star Wars and Star Trek books hover somewhere between Level 0 and Level 1.  In Dragonlance or Wheel of Time books, cursing is often handled something narrating without quoting, like: “She loosed a string of obscenities that would make his mother blush.”  Older pulp like the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs lives in Level 0, and I think even most Heinlein does, from a language perspective (more on language-vs-subject matter later).

Level 2: IMO, now we’re in to PG-13 territory, but I grew up in the 80s.

Level 3: These words didn’t appear on TV until a later South Park series, where they made a satirical point of it.  I put this level as a somewhat gray area between PG-13 and R-Rated language.  But even better, I found the original “Oh Shit” in the 1980s Transformers movie.  I knew I heard it in the theater!  They had edited it out by the time I got the VHS tape for Christmas.

Level 4. This seems to be the holy grail of bad language in common meme-space.

R-rated, and historical as far as I can tell.  It’s like the word that never got written, but was often invoked in history.  However this word has lost its edginess in the last two decades from over-use.  My own vernacular tends to hang between Level 0 and Level 1, with sarcasm driving me into level 2, but I occasionally borrow from Level 4 and skipping 3 altogether.  It must be the military culture, but saying out WTF is not uncommon in the workplace in non-meeting times.  “What the FUCK!?!  This staff package is half-assery of the highest sort!”

Level 5.  This word seems to be one of the true remaining offensive, non-racial slur words.  I’ve met many people who are comfortable hearing the F-bomb dropped in the appropriate context, but are made very uncomfortable by the C-bomb.  This makes this word powerful in its ability to evoke a specific emotional reaction.

Level 6.  Racial slurs.  We all know of them.  Whether these are as “vulgar” as Level 5, they certainly carry the highest “offensiveness” rating.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll only go to say that they have no place in a fictional-world fantasy, as they *are* world-specific to the real world.

Certainly most of the fantasy I read as a kid, even those with adult content (like the demon sex in Tanith Lee’s books), kept their language between level 0 and 1.  As an adult, I appreciate fantasy that is produced/written like a historical drama (which is why Peter Jackson’s films were as good as Braveheart).  Braveheart certainly had language, Peter Jackson’s did not.  I think both of those movies would have been weaker had their positions been inverted.

Coming to historical fiction, my favorite show on TV has been HBO’s Rome, which border’s on the pornographic in adult content.  Its language goes right to level 5.  Yet, I think it’s one of the hands-down best TV dramas I’ve seen.  The following is a scene with Mark Antony and Octavian.  I thought the Mark Antony’s use of the expletive “Jupiter’s cunt” a nice, if odd, touch.

So, I like and enjoy series of all language levels.

Fiction in the early 1900s (Burroughs, Bram Stoker, etc) is very much influenced by Victorian values (Dracula was sexually shocking for its time–now it hardly is a blip on our “adult content” radar).  I find that when a story is set in a fictional world, or a fantasy set in a pre-Victorian (even pre-Christian) time, I don’t want it to be back-sugar coated for sensibility’s sake.   I’m not saying I want it to be gratuitous.  I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill or Mel Gibson’s Payback and Passion of the Christ, which I found particularly vulgar), profanity (most 80s action movies who seemed to want to use language just to be edgy), or nudity (utterly stupid movies like Bikini Vacation).  I thought Rome was  a superb example of a story that we find quite shocking today, but we are shocked by its honesty rather than its gratuity (at least, by my standards).  Pagan Rome was not Christian Rome.

However, I’m also aware that language is off-putting to some.  For some it breaks the suspension of disbelief (especially if that person’s encounters with fantasy are books aimed at the teen markets).  And for some, having it in entertainment makes them feel dirty and prevents the “fun factor” that is the goal of entertainment.

So I’m struggling right now with my first novel as to whether to dial back the language or not.  In truth, there’s not much there.  The words “fuck” and “cunt” appear once each in the text.  They occur 2/3 of the way through the book.  The challenge, I think, is that they dissonant with the established tone of the book, which hangs around level 0-1, with an occasional 2.  I tend to keep in mind the character’s voice, and the profane speaker doesn’t show up until later.  The obvious answer is that they are out of place, and that I could open the book up to a larger market by dialing it back.  Maybe too, some people don’t mind such honest realism in literature, but prefer to keep it from reading that is meant primarily for entertainment.

The counterpoints to removing these two words are these:

  • Bad language in and of itself is not atypical for “olden times”.  These words seem to be old enough to lend themselves of medieval or post-medieval fantasy.
  • Profanity in writing is like dissonance in music.  It has a place, and is one of the tools used to contrast harmony.
  • Thematic content.  Even if I dial the language back, it’s still an adult book based on content.  While my scenes are neither explicit or graphic, there is no question as to what is occurring (I “blur the camera” but not the audio), and there are hetero and same-sex encounters in the story.  Combined with a story that has gods and demons, questions religion, lets violent characters be violent, the content is still “rated R”, IMO.  Therefore, I’m not sure what value is served by artificially down-playing the language when the content still begs the same audience.
  • I’ve also had conversations with friends (specifically about Robert Jordan contrasted with George R. R. Martin) that the “made up cuss words” seems silly and gimmicky.  Either swear or don’t.

But, both Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land) and Herbert (Dune) explored adult concepts without pulling any punches, and without profanity.

So, I’m on the fence.

But more importantly, I learned that is too much fun.

That’s all for this week.



14 thoughts on “Ermahgerd, Profernity!

  1. I laughed out loud at several of your memes! Thanks for including the meme generator link because my day is now planned. *wink* As far as profanity goes, like any choice of language, it definitely has to fit into the story. But of course, there will always be those who aren’t comfortable with it. A fun conundrum! So what did you decide?

    • I ended up using the words when I felt they were warranted. Most of the time, it’s “in character”. When it’s not, sometimes the word “fuck” is the right word–especially when it’s a drug-addicted whore and the man abusing her. There’s no point beating around the bush on that. Have fun with the meme generator! 🙂

    • Oh… and I did make it a point to introduce the language a little earlier in the book, so it wasn’t a surprise 200 pages in… one of my beta readers was like, “WTF? when did we go here?”. So I increased the “edge factor” a little earlier…

  2. Don’t forget pissed! “I took a piss” V “I am pissed.” Mid range to me. taking a piss is upper middle class and being pissed is lower middle class. Or is it the other way around?

    Frak is probably the worst thing about Galactica. Never got used to it.

    Love the music analogy. Cussing is dissonant, and it has its place. But it begs the question. I very occasionally enjoy Schoenberg or Ives. Would I occasionally enjoy an uninterrupted broadcast of tourettes.

    • In British english, “taking the piss” means giving you a hard time, or joking. “You’re taking the piss out of me, right?” Means “you’re just joking at my expense, right?” Of course, getting pissed means getting drunk. And in British English, the equivalent of the American “I’m pissed off” (angry) is “I’m fucked off”. I find that “fuck” seems to be a lot more common in European parlance than American parlance.

  3. Frak me! What an interesting discussion for a Friday morning. Only you could come up with dissecting the gradations between the F bomb and the C word. Language is very interesting as you point out, but if I can add a complementary aspect to this, I am intrigued by the move in fiction today into not just sex but different kinds. That could be a topic for another article.

    I am stunned that so called mainstream fiction has warmed to the Fifty Shades of Gray series. Way beyond sex, that brings in bondage and domination. I have seen that in some recent sci fi books as well veering into previoulsly untouched areas. I havent even considered the mythical creature/fairy/elf with human.

    Like everyone, I have my own limits on what I find acceptable and if a story veers into one of the categories I find offensive, I will stop or not get the book. Great topics K.

    • I don’t know anything about Fifty Shades of Gray, other than I’ve heard about it.

      As far as sex in sci-fi. There’s some vintage sci-fi that pushes the boundaries. About book 5 in Frank Herbert’s Dune series they had a sisterhood that could physical addict men to their touch, essentially enslaving them. In Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, he basically advocates open marriages and swinging, followed by post-mortem cannibalism. Good times.

  4. “Mother’s milk in a cup!” Apparently that was the dirtiest possible slur in Robert Jordan. It made me laugh, almost lol. He actually imparted the exact opposite feeling on me the reader than he intended. Personally I can handle hearing anything except the C-bomb and *some* racial slurs. Others don’t really evoke an emotion from me. What insults whom I’m sure varies quite a bit and you can’t make everybody happy. Waiting until 2/3 of the book is over and then jumping straight to lvl 4-5 profanity may be where the disjoint is. What if you just added a few more 1-3 words in earlier chapters just to break down the barriers in the readers’ minds?

    Good article.

    • Great topic, and I do take credit for a potion of the content. My fantasy chops demand both suspension of disbelief and a corresponding grounding in some kind of reality. Martin creates a world and characters which are crafted to seem natural with profanity, and it seems natural in terms of true human nature as well. I’ll contend that any literature that attempts to craft a relatable human society, whether it’s fantasy or not, must contain at least some of these elements to stay relevant to the reader. Or at least this reader. Love to take a crack at your book!

      • Well, Jason. My book should be out on kindle this winter for ~$2.99, with a hardcopy paperback version under $10. I think you’ll like it.

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